This week’s excuse for not making more progress on my book or anyone else’s is that I have my first cold in two years, and staring at words makes my headache worse—which has not prevented me from reading 7,001 things on my phone, but you cannot give up your entire life just because of a virus. I’ve spent much of the week on the couch, where my chief activities consist of wiping my nose, refreshing Twitter, thinking about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and—when I feel the need to be really productive—researching what type of winter booties to get for the dog. While there appears to be a strong correlation between how well I can breathe through my nose and how many words I can consume in one sitting, I did get a good start on A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, which was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I adored Madeline Miller’s Circe. A Thousand Ships considers the Trojan War from the perspective of various women and goddesses, a framework that was always fated to get my money, and I am hoping to finish it before my mythology-obsessed 13-year-old realizes it’s in the house. (We don’t talk enough about how it feels to watch your children grow up right before your eyes and start stealing your reading material.)
I also got several chapters into Mary Laura Philpott’s forthcoming memoir in essays, Bomb Shelter, which has one of the best subtitles I think I’ve ever seen: Love, Time, and Other Explosives. When she writes about trying to constantly guard against threats, believing that this and her powerful love for her family will somehow help keep them safe, I felt, as they say, personally attacked.
But it’s her account of finding her teenage son seizing on the bathroom floor—the narrative toggling between the moment of crisis, her earliest memories as his mother, and the sort of reflexive, everyday observations a parent can’t help making no matter the situation—that pulled the air from my lungs:
My son lies where he fell when he began to seize, just two steps into the bathroom when he dropped cold, his head now ricocheting against bathtub, toilet, and floor. His lips are purple, almost blue. He arches his feet involuntarily. Such big feet. He needs new shoes. I need to take him to the shoe store.
As I read about Philpott going to the hospital with her son, I found myself remembering the first time I thought something might be wrong with one of my babies, and how nothing could have prepared me for the resulting tidal wave of vulnerability, terror, and adrenaline—I couldn’t have expressed all I felt in that moment, but I heard it in the unfamiliar wobble in my voice when I spoke with doctors; I saw it in the new and disconcerting expression reflected back at me in the mirror of a cold hospital bathroom. One reason we read is to know that burst of recognition when someone supplies new language for that which we once found indescribable. Mary Laura Philpott finds words for this intense experience known to so many—and she’s consistently hilarious, too, even when discussing all the terrifying things in life that we can neither predict nor prevent. I’m eager to continue this book, which has so far felt like a comfort even when cutting close to the bone.
Dear I Have Notes,
I’m trying to write nonfiction and I’m wondering what a “brainstorming idea” looks like for you. I have way too many ideas, and I struggle to organize them in a way that can help me transition to writing my piece more smoothly. Any suggestion, process, or visual is appreciated. Also, please share your go-to books on the craft of writing!
— So Many Ideas
Dear So Many Ideas,
As writing problems go, this is truly the best one to have. I’m glad to share some of my methods, but of course every writer will have their own—through trial and error, you’ll figure out what works best for you.
I keep track of my ideas in a big brainstorming document, loosely organized by theme and subject. Some are actually orphaned lines or sections removed from other works, ideas I wasn’t quite ready to discard even if I couldn’t make them fit where they were (I find this makes it easier to cut when necessary—you’re not killing your darlings if you might use them somewhere else!). I also brainstorm and take notes related to specific projects; over the last year or so, I’ve amassed a collection of memories, quotes, research, etc. that I may want to work into the book I’m writing. I go into all of these brainstorming documents periodically to reread what I’ve collected, add more notes, move ideas around, consider whether any of them may be connected.
I will frequently run ideas by trusted readers and fellow writers, as I find it a worthwhile exercise to try to describe an idea to someone else—it helps me organize my thoughts, clarify the story’s progression and the overarching point. If I struggle to do any of this clearly or succinctly, that probably means I have more work to do. And while you shouldn’t base all your writing objectives on what other people think, it can be helpful to note which subjects seem to generate the most energy or conversation: If someone whose opinion I value responds to an idea with excitement and/or several interesting questions for me, that’s a sign that there might be something there.
Sometimes I need to write my way into a piece; I may not know if an idea is working, or where I should take it, until I’ve spent time generating. This can give way to one of those magical writing experiences when everything works even better than you’d hoped, and you go from spark to draft in a matter of hours. But it’s more common for me to explore a topic for a while, let it sit, then come back later to look with fresh eyes. I might try to work backwards a bit: What’s the animating question or destination I’m writing toward, and what do readers need in order to understand the stakes and stay with me until we get there? Do I have all the material I need in order to guide them through this story, or do I need to do some more brainstorming or research? This line of questioning helps me identify which points and ideas might belong in a given narrative, and which are extraneous or part of a different story altogether.
By far the best way I’ve found to organize a number of ideas and transition to writing is the good old reliable outline, though I admit I’m not the best at outlining and, for many years, did so only grudgingly. I find an outline especially helpful when planning a longer work, or one that includes more research or reporting—it allows me to glimpse the shape and structure of the piece and gives me a kind of trail to follow, even if I veer from it as I draft. If I’ve outlined something, I know that I can probably write it, so there’s a not-insignificant confidence boost I stand to gain as well. And if I think I won’t be able to work on a project for a while (I will write you someday, novel!), I take comfort in knowing that, if nothing else, I’ve worked out and preserved the key plot points.
I think it’s always instructive to revisit work by writers you admire, whether short- or long-form, reading with an eye toward their storytelling choices. How do they organize their thoughts and ideas, and build the connective tissue between them? How do they move between exposition and scene, or past events and present analysis, or telling and showing? Can you imagine what their outlines might have looked like? You can pick up a lot just by reading and trying to figure out how other writers construct their stories.
You asked about craft books—two current favorites of mine are Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses (focused on fiction writing and workshopping, but there’s also much to appreciate if you write literary nonfiction) and Body Work by Melissa Febos (to be published in March 2022, if you want to preorder). I will always have a soft spot for The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. If you’re interested in memoir, I really like Beth Kephart’s books on the subject, starting with Handling the Truth.
I also deeply, deeply love E. B. White’s essay “The Sea and the Wind That Blows,” about his experiences as a solitary and, so he claims, not terribly skilled sailor who still feels “a memorial chill” each time he embarks on another voyage—this is precisely my relationship to writing!—and I often think of it when beginning something new. And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that when I need to feel inspired or shake something loose in my own writing, I turn to poetry, which has never failed me yet.
Do you have a question about friendship, family relationships, or creative work that you’d like me to answer in a future newsletter? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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